Obama Creates Group Coordinating Alaska Oil and Gas Development

Tuesday, President Obama created a new inter-agency group to coordinate oil and gas development in Alaska.  It pulls together top officials from agencies like Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency and will be led by Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Hayes.

Hayes says its goal is to get the federal groups on the same page.

“First we are going to facilitate orderly and efficient decision making processes by making sure agencies working together as we evaluate permits and conduct rigorous environmental reviews for onshore and offshore energy development projects in Alaska,” Hayes said.

President Obama first announced plans for an interagency coordination group on Alaskan development this spring, an idea that Senator Mark Begich had been pushing.   Tuesday, the President signed an executive order, making it official. Hayes says it gives the federal departments an organized way of working together.

“This means communicating on schedules, progress on different pending decisions, sharing application project information, developing jointly scientific and environmental data that are needed for good decision-making, pulling together cultural and traditional knowledge across our agencies that are relevant,” Hayes said. “It means making sure that we’re working together as a federal family collectively to have the best information available to make the best decisions possible.”

Other agencies at the table include deputy-level staff from the Departments of Commerce, Agriculture, Defense, and Homeland Security, and the Office of the Federal Coordinator for gas projects, Larry Persily. Hayes says it will also work with non-federal authorities like the state of Alaska, the North Slope Borough, tribes and non-profit groups.

Oil and gas companies, the state and Congressional delegation have complained that permits are given out too slowly.  But Hayes says this is not a one-stop-shop for oil and gas companies to get the go-ahead on development.

“I think what this is a one stop shop for coordination of permitting, which is extremely important.  As I said before this is not a new super permitting group.  Each department will continue to be responsible for instituting its statutory obligations.  But will have a 1 stop shop for coordinating permitting of oil and gas in the arctic, and this group will ensure there is good coordination in that regard,” Hayes said.

Hayes announced the new interagency group on Tuesday at a conference on Arctic oil and gas development in Washington at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  He took questions from the audience and other experts speaking at the event, including Fran Ulmer, head of the Arctic Research Commission.  She voiced concerns that responsible oil and gas development requires costly infrastructure and environmental investments. Ulmer used as an example the need for a new Coast Guard icebreaker, which is nowhere near becoming a reality.

“It does take investment, at the very same time that Congress seems totally preoccupied with the debt. Not that that’s important, but there are counterbalancing interests. Could you comment, please?,” Ulmer said.

Hayes admitted that some members of Congress have tried to punish the Obama Administration departments with budget cuts for what they see as permit delays.  He says that actually slows things down.

“We’re concerned about that, we’re very concerned about that,” Hayes said. “And the arctic is a very good example of an area that could be affected in significant ways by budget implications.”

Hayes says initial investment is necessary to get the permits moving forward, which in the end will reap money.

Conservationists are responding to the new interagency coordination group by saying it’s an opportunity to look at the Arctic as a whole, and see what affect drilling might have on the environment.